Is London the UK's Silicon Valley?

Is London the UK's Silicon Valley?

By Professor Andrew Jones (Chair of the London Entrepreneurial University Ecosystem Group and Vice-President Research and Enterprise at City, University of London) and Alice Frost (Director of Knowledge Exchange, Research England)

28 February 2020

Silicon Valley is renowned the world over and has dominated the narrative around universities and economic development. This is the story of extraordinary universities growing up in conjunction with their place to create a powerful environment for knowledge, technology and entrepreneurship.

We are publishing today the first report from a London-Research England group that is examining the question of whether London was, is or could be something akin to a Silicon Valley in the UK. This is not a simple question, and we started our work with honest recognition of all the caveats to our enterprise.  (We also recognised that London is not the only place – abroad and in UK - doing such an investigation.)

Expert commentators warn of the danger of assuming that Silicon Valley (or Kendall Square in Boston) is a transferable model that can be simply “lifted and shifted” to another place. The institutions – universities, businesses, investors – co-evolve in a place over time and are mutually dependent. History matters. Places have unique stories of their origins and their means of development.

Universities and places also do not have just one story of co-development -. Although Silicon Valley is our focus (which we think is relevant to London as a place) there are several other models, illustrated in a MIT framework:

Universities, Innovation, And the Competitiveness of Local Economies, Richard K Lester, MIT December 2005

Universities, Innovation, And the Competitiveness of Local Economies, Richard K Lester, MIT December 2005 [1]

Taking account of all these challenges, the focus of our group is the experience of universities in London, using their deep understanding of their place to define how their ecosystem works. We have an aspiration to create a predictive model that can specify the types and levels of ingredients needed to come together to achieve new companies that thrive coming out of the university base.

The group was supported by Research England and national stakeholders – the National Centre for Universities and Business and the British Business Bank – to consider whether the model developed for London could have wider applicability.

Our stage one report includes a literature review on the ecosystem concept, a generic model of an ecosystem for testing and technical information on further evidence work. Our stage one work has made us think:

  • About the scale of London, and particularly whether it forms a connected system, or a set of subsystems.  We became interested in whether we could map these subsystems and tech and expertise communities. 
  • Of the importance of the soft elements to ecosystems such as leadership, entrepreneurial culture and networks; and whether there are subtle or even profound differences of these in different tech and entrepreneurial communities.
  • And the risk of “boiling the ocean” trying to evidence a highly complex model versus the risk of producing a simple system that is easily measured but has no predictive possibilities. This led us to adopt two - complex and simplified - ecosystem models
Ecosystem model

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Simplified ecosystem model

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We are now embarking on more focussed studies to drill down on key aspects of the challenge of describing the scale and nuance of London. This includes a quantitative study to identify scale of opportunities, and qualitative studies to explore the likely cultural variations across different tech communities, starting with Fashion, Fintech and Pharmaceutical.  Are their ecosystems unique or involve generic and shared elements?  How different are their leaders, cultures and networks?  How different are their experiences in London?

Finally, we need to be careful of fashion in another sense – the danger of fashionable policy concepts that become common currency but lack the specificity to make them susceptible to evidence.

We are grateful to NCUB for providing this web space where we can report on all the stages of our journey to describe our ecosystem, and to seek feedback.  We are already grateful for contributions of academic commentators, pulling us up on the dangers of policy fashion [2], and we would welcome more such.  We would also welcome stories from ecosystem builders in other places, including critique of our approach – and we have started to work on a comparison with New York. We recognise that there is not one approach, and we want to learn. 

  2. Thomas, Llewellyn & Autio, Erkko. (2020) Innovation ecosystems in management: an organizing typology.